Cellaring wine is a must for true collectors—but knowing when to open those bottles is where the real fun begins.
In the late 1970s, Paul Masson Vineyards launched an advertising campaign featuring the venerable, larger-than-life actor, Orson Welles. On television commercials and in print ads, Welles continuously stated on behalf of Paul Masson: “We will sell no wine before its time.”
The slogan became a national catchphrase that morphed into a variety of drinking jokes, including one that even today appears on T-shirts and on wine bar plaques: “We will drink no wine before it’s time. It’s time!”
But Welles and Paul Masson were doing more than simply selling a brand. Intentional or not, they were imparting wisdom to consumers that wine—all wine—gets better with age. It became the “a-ha” moment for American wine drinkers to follow in the footsteps of centuries of Europeans. The result? “Cellaring” officially came of age in the New World.
Thirty years later, with more Americans than ever listing wine as their alcoholic beverage of choice, the habit of squirreling away wine for future consumption has led to a dramatic increase in the number of wine cellars—whether they be kitchen wine racks; stand-alone, temperature-controlled wine storage units; converted closets and basements; or entire separate wings of the family homestead. Some put their stash under their beds. Others (to the dismay of wine professionals) park their wine in the garage and leave the cars in the driveway.
(Before I got hip to the temperature-controlled movement, I used to stack bottles in the coat closet and under my stairwell. Not a good idea: Those Merry Edwards bottles are darn heavy, and when they fall from the top of the coat rack, you better duck and run!)
The cellaring crusade is so strong these days that entire ancillary businesses of wine storage, cellar construction, inventory software and counseling from professional sommeliers have become part and parcel of the overall wine industry. But is cellaring really necessary? Sometimes.
Does wine actually improve with age? Not always.
At the risk of bursting a few bubbles—and perhaps inflating a few new ones—we talked with contractors, sommeliers, winemakers, collectors and just plain old consumers. Here’s what they had to say.
No wine before its time
A 2005 survey by the California Association of Winegrape Growers ascertained that a majority of American wine drinkers—experts and novices alike—believe all wine improves with age.
Not so, according to those in the know. Not all varietals benefit from age, and even those that do frequently have risk factors (vintage, winemaking methods, alcohol levels) that might limit the amount of time they’d benefit from cellaring.
“White wines are the easiest to explain,” says Sara Fowler, winemaker at Peju Province Winery in Rutherford. “Take a Chardonnay, for example. If it’s pressed whole cluster and the juice goes into a tank and is fermented in stainless steel, that wine won’t age as long, because it has very little tannins compared to wine that’s had some skin contact time and barrel age. However, if the grapes are crushed instead of whole-cluster pressed, that’s a different story, because the wine is apt to have more skin tannins and contact with the wood barrels,” she explains, which allows further tannins to develop. Tannins can add flavor, structure and texture to wine, and their antioxidant traits contribute to a wine’s ability to age gracefully.
“Tannins and pH level are two of the most important factors to consider when determining whether or not a wine will age,” Fowler continues. The more tannins and the higher the acid level, the better chance the wine will benefit from cellaring. This applies to both white and red wines, but since red wine, by nature, is more tannic than white, red wines overall tend to be better candidates for cellaring.
“In addition to tannins from grape skins and seeds, how long the wine spends in barrels and the new oak percentage (of those barrels) is one of the main factors that determines tannin development,” she explains. Early in a wine’s development, tannins are “huge” on your palate, Fowler says. “Your taste buds are like cups, and young tannins are like pearls. They sit in the cups—they’re aggressive and up front. As the wine ages, these pearls start forming chains that flow in and out of the cups like a strand of pearls. The longer these strands get, the softer and more supple the wines become. If a wine has lots of tannins, it takes longer for the chains to form. But if you wait too long to drink the wine, the chains start falling apart as the tannins dissipate.”
Soon the wine loses its fruit and is over the hill. And another good drinking opportunity is lost to the ages.
Christopher Sawyer, a journalist-sommelier, professional wine judge and the co-founder of wineradius.com, an online retail wine shop and wine consulting firm, is a firm believer that not all wines are equal when it comes to cellaring. He should know. He lives in a home built on the Marin-Sonoma border in 1885. The underground wine cellar was added in the 1920s. Over the years, he’s amassed a collection of more than 1,200 bottles.
In general, Sawyer believes the majority of Chardonnays are “meant to drink within the first two years of their release.” Some, however, deserve a second look. “You can tell if a Chardonnay is age-worthy based on its layers of aromas, bouquet, flavor profile, texture and acid level. If the bouquet is a peach fuzz slammer and creamy—if the flavor profiles are complex and the acid is good—that Chardonnay has the ability to go on for several years,” he says. If it doesn’t have those levels of structure and balance, “it becomes questionable cooking wine.
“If you’re willing to spend $20 or more on a Chardonnay at a good wine shop or tasting room, be sure to ask what they think about aging it,” Sawyer emphasizes. “Personally, I think a well-made Chardonnay is good for three to five years. The best, from specialty vineyards such as Hanzell, Durrell, Les Pierres, Rochioli, Dehlinger and Dutton Ranch, can keep for 15 years and drink like an out-of-body experience.
“Chalk Hill is another great Chardonnay,” Sawyer says. “Both Hanzell and Chalk Hill are designed to be like White Burgundy, as opposed to New World-style Chardonnays. Both have plenty of acid, and fine wines have great acidity—or else they become expensive grape juice over the years.”
Sauvignon Blanc is another wine in the “drink now” category, according to Sawyer. A few, like those made by Cakebread Cellars, Araujo, Fortress Vineyards and Dry Creek Vineyard, are crafted using the Musque clone. Sawyer says these wines are “designed for elegance and finesse, so they’ll last three years or so and take on various nuances.”
Other domestic white wines to drink early include Viognier and other Rhône whites (Roussanne and Marsanne, for example). However, one white wine with excellent aging potential, depending on its acid and sugar levels, says Sawyer, is Riesling. “Rieslings are great right away with Asian and other exotic and spicy foods. But they can be aged five years easily and, over time, tend to taste much better when paired with a tasty spread of fine cheeses.”
Red wines are trickier. Despite bigger tannic structures, some really are better if consumed fairly young. And vintage plays a very important role in determining how long they’ll hold. Take Zinfandel, for instance. Sawyer believes Zins made from younger vines should be consumed as quickly as possible, because they’re “perky” and “taste so good right out of the bottle.”
If you’re looking to age a Zinfandel, Sawyer recommends looking for those made from old vine field blends (vines a minimum of 50 years old) that include smaller portions of Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro (Mourvedre), Alicante Bouschet and, in some cases, Primitivo (an Italian varietal that’s genetically related to Zinfandel). “The best Zins are blends, and aging them allows lots of play time in the bottle, so the field blends can integrate,” he says. “If you don’t have a configuration of blends, a Zin will turn out like a Claret as it ages.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you want more fruit, drink the Zin while it’s young.
Some Syrahs, especially those that are high in alcohol, have problems with aging, he continues. “A lot of California Syrahs are boisterous, loud and obnoxious. Because they’re grown in hot regions, they tend to be very high in alcohol and taste very meaty. Many of these wines tend to fall apart as they age, and consumers never get to taste the fruit character. On the other hand, Syrahs made with fruit grown in cooler climates tend to be more elegant on the palate, with diverse flavor profiles, significant layers of spice, plenty of backbone and lower alcohol levels. These styles and the ones that include a small portion of Viognier in the blend are the most age-worthy Syrahs currently available.” Sawyer’s favorites are from Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and the Central Coast.
“These are cool climate Syrahs, and in about five to 10 years, they’ll be showing more of what they’re about—even though they’re still great to drink right off the bat,” Sawyer says. “In the future, we’ll see a lot more Syrah-Grenache blends. Right now, the Central Coast wineries are at the forefront of this movement. There are a lot of age-worthy Syrahs, once they’re blended.”
Merlot, much maligned since it was spoken of disparagingly in the hit movie “Sideways,” isn’t dead, says Sawyer. He doesn’t recommend Santa Barbara Merlots (which is where “Sideways” was filmed), but does see good aging potential in Merlots from cooler climate areas, like the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Carneros.
“Carneros is one place that people aren’t paying enough attention to when it comes to Merlot,” Sawyer says. “It’s dramatically similar to the right bank in Bordeaux, where the wind in the afternoon makes you feel like you’re wearing a toupee. A great example of an age-worthy Merlot from Carneros is HdV from the Hyde Vineyard [HdV is a family venture between Hyde Vineyards of Napa Valley and Aubert and Pamela de Villaine of Burgundy, France]. They chose to make a traditional French Merlot from this vineyard, which I think is pretty gutsy. It’s an amazing wine.” Other favorite Merlots include ones from Adastra in Carneros and Matanzas Creek in Bennett Valley.
The biggest red wine trend right now continues to be Pinot Noir. “Let’s thank ‘Sideways’ and the 2004 vintage, which had a strange 10-day heat wave that made it super lush right off the bat,” says Sawyer. “Drink it and you’re in heaven, because it’s so ripe—but do drink it. The 2004 vintage won’t last [in the cellar].”
Pinot Noir is one varietal that’s very dependent on vintage for determining whether or not it will cellar well. “The 2005 vintage will be a good one for aging,” Sawyer says, “because there wasn’t a lot of sun. It’s about as close as we’re going to get to a true Burgundy-style vintage. The wines generally have great natural acidity.” Among his favorites for the cellar are Buena Vista Carneros, Robert Stemmler, Arista, Joseph Swan, Russian Hill Estate, Rochiolli and Holdredge. He urges people to drink the higher alcohol Pinot Noirs as soon as possible, however: “The over-the-top ones are very extracted and taste more like Syrah and, to be honest, it’s a bit like a crap shoot to see how long they’ll last.”
Hands down, the wines most experts agree will age the best are Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage (a traditional Bordeaux blend).
“Cabernet Sauvignon can be aged for a long time and, when you get your hands on a nice aged bottle, it can be one of the greatest experiences you’ve ever had,” says Sawyer. “The ones that age best are done in the Bordeaux style using Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot to add more structure and smooth out the loose ends.”
But again, Sawyer warns that not all Cabernet Sauvignons and Meritage wines are created equal. “Those grown in valleys—like Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek, Alexander Valley and on the Napa Valley floor—tend to be fine consumed fairly young,” he says. “But the best are grown on hillsides or in rocky soils and come from older vines. These are the most age-worthy overall, and because each vine has to work that much harder to produce each cluster, the intensity of the fruit is that much greater.” According to Sawyer, the 2005 and 2006 vintages have great aging potential, but “many winemakers are taking great pride in the 2007 vintage, because it took so long for those grapes to develop. I’m anxious to taste the richness and intensity of the finished product myself.”
The average time to hold a well-made Cabernet Sauvignon or Meritage in a cellar is five to 15 years, Sawyer says. His favorites include Trilogy by Flora Springs (a Meritage); Cabernet Sauvignons and Meritage wines from the Napa appellations and districts of Stags Leap, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder and Diamond Mountain. In Sonoma County, the best Cabernets tend to come from Alexander Valley, Knights Valley and Sonoma Valley, especially just about anything grown on rocky red soils at the famed Monte Rosso Vineyard.
One wine Sawyer never considers putting in the cellar is Rosé.
“Basically, when you buy it, drink it. These wines are released in spring, and they’re immediately ready to be paired with fine cuisine in the warm summer and fall. Realistically, you should be drinking your last bottles of Rosé [of the most recent vintage] with Thanksgiving dinner and the leftovers that follow. Six months tops from purchase to consumption, then buy more next spring,” he advises.
OK, you’ve heard from the experts, and you still want to set aside a supply of wine for a rainy day. If you’re serious about it, you really need to rethink the beneath-the-bed, in-the-closet, under-the-stairwell or out-in-the-garage strategy.
One simple way to get started is to peruse wine accessory catalogs or the Internet. There are a variety of stand-alone, temperature-controlled wine storage units. Some hold as few as six bottles, others hold hundreds, and many can be customized to hold larger-format bottles. If you plan to put one of these units in your garage, where it could be exposed to wider temperature fluctuations than inside a home, be sure you opt for a heavier refrigeration unit to help battle summer heat.
Another option is to contract for off-site storage. Vintrust, a San Francisco-based company, offers storage services for collectors, with warehouses in American Canyon and North Bergen, New Jersey (for East Coast customers). The company also offers storage services to wineries at the American Canyon location and a new Santa Rosa warehouse that was opened in July. There are also smaller, private wine storage options available, including The Squire Wine Storage in Santa Rosa and Expressway Self Storage in Rohnert Park, among others. These companies offer individual wine lockers in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Check your local phone directory under Wine Storage for a complete listing.
If you opt for off-site storage, do thorough research before entrusting your collection to just anyone. Consider the Mare Island wine warehouse fire and the wine embezzlement charges filed against one Marin County wine storage executive just a few years ago [see “Don't Go in the Cellar,” October 2008].
“Strength and longevity of the company are important considerations,” says Derek Bromley, vice president of marketing for Vintrust. “Fraud should also be a concern—you never really know. Look into temperature control, and make sure they have back-up power for cooling in case the electrical service is interrupted. Review the general building security practices, including whether the company has unlisted addresses for its storage warehouses. At Vintrust, customers know where their wines are located, but we don’t advertise location to the general public. Also make sure the company has reasonable technological and business processes. Your wines should be easily accessible and locatable.”
A third option is to build or alter a part of your residence into a wine cellar. A dedicated closet can be converted to a temperature-controlled environment with racking. Or you can have a cellar built to your specifications. If the latter is in your plans, the first call you should make is to an expert. It will save you a lot of time, money and headaches.
“As wine gains in popularity, more and more people are opting for cellars, and they should contact an expert from the get-go,” says Catherine Fallis, MS, CWP, a master sommelier and president of Planet Grape LLC (www.planetgrape.com). “I can tell you from personal experience that architects have ideas that don’t always work. I recently worked with a top-notch restaurant in San Francisco that built a cellar without consulting an expert. They called me to develop their wine list. I looked at their new cellar, and whoever designed it put in racking that would only accommodate Bordeaux-style bottles—no Champagne bottles, no Burgundy bottles. They had to tear it out and re-do it.”
Fallis has several tips for those looking to build a cellar. “The first thing to do is figure out what wine you like. If you only drink German Rieslings, make sure your racks will accommodate them. Cubes are inexpensive, and you can stack six to nine Bordeaux bottles in them, but you can’t use them to store Burgundy bottles,” she says. (Traditional Burgundy bottles are more roundly shaped and, when stacked, have a tendency to roll. Bordeaux bottles are more uniformly shaped—long and slender—and stack much more securely.)
Next, track consumption. “Look at a typical four-week period and figure out just what you drink—how many bottles and what type. Add in your entertaining habits. Your cellar should be something you want to show off, maybe even have a meal inside. You don’t want it to be a mausoleum or a museum. It should be comfortable and accessible,” she explains.
Figure out where the cellar should be based on your lifestyle, home and how much wine is a part of your life.
“For me, the cellar is right off the living room,” Fallis laughs. “But seriously, even if your downstairs is cooler and darker, consider that it might be too far away, locked up and dark. You might tend not to go down there.”
Fallis said it’s also very important to lock your cellar to make sure staff, household guests and underage drinkers can’t get ready access. And give your spouse their own wall if they’re not as interested in wine as you are, but they like to occasionally pick something from the cellar. This way, they’ll know what wines are OK to drink. “This keeps them from accidentally drinking your $300 Bordeaux, and complaining about that gritty stuff at the bottom,” she says.
Organize your cellar based on consumption: “If you’re buying wine to lay down for 20 years, place those bottles on the highest racks or in the furthest corners.”
Make sure the cellar is closed off and hermetically sealed at an ideal temperature (between 50 and 70 degrees) and humidity (65 to 70 percent).
But most important, she reiterates, once you’ve made the decision to invest in a custom cellar, call in an expert immediately.
In the North Bay, Patrick Wallen owns Artistic Wine Cellars in San Rafael, which he launched eight years ago after more than a decade of designing commercial refrigeration systems for delicatessens and small grocery markets. After creating several custom wine cellars for clients of his then-employer, Wallen decided to start his own business specializing in cellar design and construction.
“I tried to convince my employer that the future was in wine cellars, but it didn’t want to invest the money, so I decided to do it myself. I walked away from my job—all the benefits—and took my show on the road,” he says.
His strongest attribute, he says, is his attention to detail, “and in wine cellars, it’s all about detail.”
The biggest mistake people make when they first decide to build a cellar is to assume they won’t need climate control. “They have a concrete bunker in the basement, and they think it’s perfect for storing wine. I’m the one who rains on their parade when I show up,” he says. “Climate control is the most important thing and should be where the largest dollar investment goes.” A basic 10-x-10-foot cellar, for example, will require about $7,000 for a climate control system.
Wallen works with his clients to determine their racking needs, based on their drinking and collecting preferences. He then meticulously designs each project the old fashioned way—on a drafting table, not a computer. He subcontracts everything, but is totally hands-on during the entire construction process.
Wallen figures 80 percent of his clients are serious wine drinkers and collectors and another 20 percent of his clients are “folks with big houses that have a media room and an exercise room; they decide they need a wine cellar, because these days, it goes hand-in-hand.” He often does spec work for home builders (one of whom puts a wine cellar in every house he constructs). Most of his clients put the cellars in the basement or below grade, while the other 40 percent or so put them on the bottom floor of the house, but “it really doesn’t make any difference where we put it. We could put a cellar on the top story of a house in Death Valley and still maintain perfect [wine storage] conditions,” he says.
Some clients have presented real challenges, including one in Walnut Creek who wanted to put his cellar in the back yard.
“We had to build it half-round to keep the building inspectors and neighbors happy, and it had to be three feet below the ground surface, so the height wouldn’t infringe on the neighbors. I had to design a racking system that could transition a curve. That wasn’t easy,” he recalls.
Dick Kahler and his wife, Diane, had Wallen design a 4,000-bottle cellar for their Sonoma home. Kahler is a retired banker who currently serves as a director of the Charter Oak Bank in Napa and chairman of Community Bank of the Bay in Oakland. His cousin was the late Justin Meyer, who co-founded Silver Oak Cellars and was responsible for crafting the Cabernets that first earned the winery its stellar reputation. Over the years, Kahler has amassed a nice selection of wine, dominated by Silver Oak’s famous Cabernet Sauvignons.
“I used to keep the wine in the garage before I built the cellar, which just drove Justin crazy,” Kahler says. When the couple decided to build a guest house, they made room for a 16-by-30-foot cellar underneath the structure.
Justin’s memory is alive and well in the cellar Wallen designed. A portrait of the legendary winemaker is on one wall, and pictures of the wineries he owned are also integral to the décor.
Wallen also helped design the unique entry to the cellar, which Kahler describes as “the best of everything wall.” The couple selected 14 different wines they normally drink, and a painting of each bottle greets guests as they make their way to the cellar.
Another client of Wallen’s is Lou Kapcsandy, owner (along with his son, Louis, Jr.) of Kapcsandy Family Winery and Grand Cru Imports in Napa Valley. Lou and his wife, Bobbi, hired Wallen to construct a cellar off the great room of their home, located next door to their winery on the old Beringer Estate Lane Vineyard in Yountville.
The Kapcsandy cellar holds 20,000 bottles. “Our biggest challenge was to lay it out within the confines of the space to hold the maximum number of bottles—both 750s and larger formats,” Kapcsandy says. “Patrick did a fantastic job. I had a design footprint already planned, but he was able to increase the capacity from 12,000 to 20,000 bottles. It’s all in redwood, which is just the best. It imparts the least flavor for wines, and it can be finished nicely so that the bottles pull in and out of the racks easily.”
With such a large collection, Kapscandy also hired Vintrust to map all the bottle locations. Vintrust took digital photographs of each bottle and provided bar codes so Kapscandy could track inventory. “[Vintrust] put together a cellar that not only monitors our inventory, but also allows for expansion. They’ve been exceptional,” Kapscandy says.
As part of its service, Vintrust assigns a wine director to each client. As Bromley explains, “this person helps them manage their wine assets, not unlike a manager for your retirement plan or a stock portfolio adviser.” Vintrust also employs a group of top-notch sommeliers who research and analyze for their client base, putting them in touch with new, trendsetting wineries. The sommeliers rate the wines and recommend when they should be consumed.
“In short, we’re able to tell our clients when they should sell their wine—or start planning a party to drink their wines that have reached peak potential,” Bromley says.
Pop the cork
Which brings us to our final topic. How do you know it’s the right time to pop the cork on a wine in your cellar?
A growing number of winemakers are adding pages to their websites with reviews of past vintages and recommendations for holding and drinking. Sawyer recommends an annual purging of the cellar over the holidays, when guests can help consume the fruits of your collection, and you can tell stories about each of the wines—where you bought it, why you bought it and what memories it evokes.
Fallis firmly believes wine isn’t a possession, it’s meant to be enjoyed and shared: “Don’t be a slave to your wine. It doesn’t need to be locked up its whole life. It needs to get out and play!”
But Mark Thayer and Jean Herschede of Cloverdale might have the best answer of all. Each spring for the past seven years, the couple has hosted an “Old Bottle Party,” when 25 to 30 of their closest friends rummage through their individual cellars to find a red wine that’s at least 10 years old or a white wine that’s at least five years old.
The couple fixes entrées, and guests bring their own glasses and side dishes. The bottles are opened and everyone partakes. The oldest bottle brought to the party thus far was from the 1936 vintage. Because of its sentimental value—and the fact that about two to three inches of the wine had already evaporated—the bottle was admired, but not opened. And the very best, according to Thayer, was a 1968 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from what’s believed to be the famous Monte Rosso Vineyard (California didn’t have appellation- or vineyard-designate wines back then, but the back label referred to “the red soils of the mountain vineyard”).
“The thing we were impressed with was the fruit—it was still young and fresh, which isn’t typical of older wines,” Thayer remembers.
Surprisingly, of the 200-plus bottles that have been opened over the years, only two were corked, “which is a better average than the trade magazines tell you is common,” Thayer says. (Industry estimates are that 5 to 7 percent of wines suffer from cork taint.)
And what does Thayer think about the practice of aging wine?
“Having tasted a lot of these older wines, the one thing I’ve discovered is that I like younger wines,” he laughs, “largely because I like more prominent fruit flavors.”
So much for Orson Welles, Paul Masson and “no wine before its time.”
Maybe the wine industry is ready for a new advertising campaign. With credit to Nike for the inspiration, a good one might be: Just drink it!